Into the maw of intelligence gathering
New law broadening National Intelligence Agency’s powers will deepen distrust and could further hamper an electoral resolution
Legislation recently passed gives Thailand’s spy agency the power to use “any methods” to obtain information in the interest of national stability. From now on, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) “may use any methods, including electronic, telecommunications or science equipment, to gain information or documents” that may affect the nation’s security, in the words of the bill. It decrees that the prime minister must be informed of any agency refusing to turn over information.
It comes as no surprise that such legislation was pushed through by the current military-led government of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the coup engineer who is trying to stay on at Government House as a civilian leader. Technically, that shouldn’t be difficult, given that the ground rules for the March election were written under his watch. But, politically, Prayut’s return won’t be smooth sailing.
The cybersecurity law approved earlier this year raised concerns about the potential abuse of power. It could after all be used as another weapon to silence critics of the government and the military. The government calls it a weapon against the spread of online lies and misinformation, which the government gets to define for society. Consider Prayut’s own words, not long ago, when he denounced social media as platforms for “incorrect thinking”. It’s likely that, in his view, “incorrect thinking” could apply to any complaints about election irregularities – from bungled vote counts to the 2.1 million invalidated ballots.
The law, which consists of 17 articles designed to increase the NIA’s power, came before the rubberstamp parliament in early February and slipped through with little public debate. It replaced the 1985 Intelligence Law, which in its own text is dismissed as being no longer “relevant to the security threat and technology that has changed”.
For a country that is supposed to be pursuing open and democratic rule, which surely ought to include an end to repressive government, this latest legislation only hampers the post-election transition. It adds to an environment that is not conducive to frank and honest debate. Rights groups and the private sector were correct to raise concerns about breaches of individual privacy. The authorities were suddenly allowed to seize any computer or connected device without a court warrant by which their actions might be
In an increasingly open society, spies will have to face a higher level of judicial and legislative scrutiny and justify what they do. Because modern technology has changed the way spies go about their clandestine business, the whole nature of official oversight has to be re-evaluated. We often pay lip service to the concept of a “government of the people and for the people”, but we are far too timid when the authorities find new ways to silence our views.
Theoretically, intelligence officials collect their information and have no say in setting policy. But it is not hard to imagine a situation in which powerful people exploit an agency like the NIA for their own political or personal gain. We have seen it in other government agencies and in law enforcement, so concerns about the new legislation is not far-fetched.
In Thailand, like everywhere else, information is power. That’s why just about every security unit in the country has its own spooks. Instead of a law that the prime minister might use at his whim, we perhaps need one that protects our intelligence officials from being exploited for political